Rocky Mountain elk are arguably Idaho’s premier big game animal, as they can be found in any of Idaho’s diverse habitats. Elk are distributed throughout Idaho from the sagebrush-dominated deserts of the south to the dense cedar-hemlock forests of the north. Elk are classified as habitat generalists, but they still have certain basic habitat requirements; food, water, and hiding cover and security areas. In areas with high levels of outdoor recreation, it is important that elk also have blocks of undisturbed habitat that are unoccupied by people, particularly during sensitive times of the year (i.e. winter and calving). Availability and distribution of these habitat components on summer and winter ranges ultimately determine the distribution and number of elk that may be supported.

A bull, or male elk can weigh up to 700 pounds and stand about 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Only bull elk grow antlers, which can weigh up to 40 pounds. Bulls grow a new set of antlers every year, and antlers are shed every winter.

A cow, or female elk typically weighs up to 500 pounds and stands about 4.5 feet tall at the shoulder. Coloration of elk hair can change with the seasons, with summer colors being a copper shade of brown, and in the fall, winter and spring their pelage, or coat, changes to more of a tan color. Their rump is typically a light beige.

Elk, like deer, are ruminants, meaning they have a four-chambered stomach. They are grazers, with their diet changing by the seasons. In the spring and fall they primarily eat grasses, and during the summer months they eat grasses and forbs (flowering plants). In the winter when forage is limited, they will eat grasses, twigs and even tree bark.

Impacts to elk populations

Idaho’s elk population is currently estimated to be about 120,000 animals. In the central part of the state, which includes the Wood River Valley, elk populations have been increasing steadily since the mid-1970s. Elk populations are influenced by a complex combination of habitat conditions/characteristics and predators. It is also likely that changes over time in weather patterns and precipitation affect the relative role of habitat and predators.

Potential predators of elk include black bears, mountain lions, and wolves. Depending on the area, these predator populations have increased over the last couple of decades. Research in north-central Idaho documented black bear and mountain lion predation as significant factors limiting elk recruitment rates, as do wolves.

Predators in the area surrounding the Wood River Valley include black bear densities whose populations appear to be low and stable. Exact mountain lion densities are unknown, as they are difficult to count, however, anecdotal evidence indicates that lions have increased in recent years, probably partly due to increased elk densities. Coyotes are common, but do not impact elk populations.

Ongoing housing developments in the Big Wood River drainage have expanded into traditional winter range for elk, reducing the amount of available winter range. Within the Valley, the majority of the best winter habitat exists on private land in drainage bottoms near residential areas. A substantial loss of winter range to residential development has occurred in the Valley and continued loss of winter range is a serious concern as the human population in that area continues to grow. Elk will select for south and west facing slopes because of shallower snow depths. In the Wood River Valley, many of these areas are near human development and recreation, which can negatively affect elk and reduce the available suitable winter habitat for them.

Please don’t feed the elk

In most years adult elk survival is high and calf survival is good. Biological studies have shown that elk entering the winter in good condition (with ample fat reserves) can survive the winter on natural feed, which includes grasses, twigs and tree bark. Starvation happens primarily to animals that enter the winter in poor body condition. Survival of the fittest is a natural process that ensures range carrying capacities (how many elk the landscape can support), are not exceeded.

Fish and Game does not encourage feeding of big game, however, there continues to be artificial feeing of elk by private citizens in southcentral Idaho. Numerous biological reasons exist for why feeding elk is harmful including:

  • Concentrating animals can lead to disease, including Chronic Wasting Disease and Brucellosis, both of which have had major detrimental consequences on ungulate populations in the U.S.
  • Elk undergo physiological changes in their digestive system during late fall, making them less able to process rich foods such as alfalfa. This can lead to bloat and possibly death if fed an inappropriate feed. If feeding is deemed necessary, IDFG purchases specially formulated feed for elk in winter.
  • Luring elk in to town makes them susceptible to injury and/or death by cars, fences, frozen ponds, dogs off leash, or poisonous landscaping plants (i.e. Japanese Yew). Additionally, mountain lions have been known to occupy residential areas in the Wood River Valley, and this becomes even more likely if elk (a primary prey item for lions) are encouraged to be there.
  • Ultimately, feeding even 200 elk will have no positive effect on the elk population. Even if it were possible to feed a substantial enough number of elk to eliminate winter mortality due to starvation, this would eventually lead to elk exceeding summer range carrying capacity. This would also likely affect other wildlife populations, such as mule deer.
  • Elk are wild animals and can become aggressive towards people and pets (including horses). During the rut, bulls can be particularly dangerous, and have been known to charge and gore people. Bull elk have gored horses at hay racks in the Wood River Valley.

The desire by the public to feed animals is natural, yet from past experience Idaho Fish and Game knows it is a complicated decision. The private feeding operations in the Valley are a symptom of human population growth and the changing demographics of the populace of the Ketchum-Sun Valley area.

In the Warm Springs drainage west of Ketchum, Fish and Game has one Department-sanctioned elk feeding site. The feed site is not necessary to sustain the elk population but was set up to shortstop elk before they enter developed winter ranges in the town of Ketchum which could lead to increased human-wildlife conflicts.

When winter conditions become critical for big game survival, Fish and Game may have to being winter feeding of wildlife, but only as a last resort. Why? Because feeding is not the simple act of kindness many people see it to be. In fact, it can create other problems for the animals people hope to help.